The union and music copyists have been expecting the move for some time. The League has tried to force copyists from the bargaining unit before and is making a concerted effort to achieve that end this time around.
Music copying is an obscure but essential part of the process of creating a musical. Composers typically produce only a piano/vocal score, after which an orchestrator takes over. The orchestrator then creates a full score, with parts for himself and all the musicians. The music copyist fashions these various versions of the score, transcribing the hand written music delivered by the orchestrator onto computer programs and then printing them out on custom-made score paper.
As the score changes throughout the rehearsal and preview period, a music copyist must deal with successive versions of the songlist. It is not unusual for a copyist to receive four or five scores a day and be required to turn the alterations around within hours or overnight. Copyists typically have a sophisticated musical background and know intimately the written language of music, its notes, keys, rests and clefs. Among the leading music copyists working on Broadway shows are Emily Grishman and Peter Miller.
The League confirmed that it had petitioned the National Relations Board on Feb. 3, with the intention of identifying copyists as "independent contractors and not employees of our productions." The memo states: "The effect of our petition, if granted, will be the removal of copyists from the Local 802 collective bargaining unit, rendering league members free to contract with copying house and copyists as they wish."
League and union representatives are currently in talks and were unavailable for comment at press time. Local 802 recently began running radio ads to drum up support for their cause. The spots feature stage stars such as Tom Wopat and Ben Vereen touting the importance of live music by professional musicians in the theatre. The guild has also run print ads in Playbill. "We want to raise public consciousness that there are Broadway orchestras," Local 802 president William Moriarty told Variety Jan. 26.
The musician minimums have long been a controversial aspect of the players union and a continual gripe of Broadway producers. As the contract now stands, backers must employ a certain number of musicians whether they require them of not. The paid, but unused, union members are known as "walkers." The number of demanded workers fluctuates with the size of the theatre.
According to Variety, since 1993 producers may barter with the union on a show-by-show basis. If they succeed, the required number of musicians can be lowered. Said Moriarty, there has been only one walker hired since 1993 (for Hairspray). Seven out of 19 special petitions by producers over the past decade have been OK'd outright by the union.
Local 802 is banking that, should there be a strike, fellow theatrical unions will stick by them and not cross the picket line. In January, 13 Broadway unions and guilds got together to create the Coalition for Broadway Unions and Guilds (COBUG). Moriarty has been busy corralling the other unions' support of Local 802's position.
The contract between the League of American Theatres and Producers and the Broadway musicians union expires on March 2.
As previously reported, theatre producers are preparing for a possible strike by exploring the use of recorded music in Broadway shows.
About the possibility of replacing live musicians with recorded music, Bill Moriarty told the New York Times: "I've been getting warnings or threats for about nine months." In fact, the Times obtained a copy of a letter sent to the League by Jeff Lazarus, chief executive of RealTime Music Solutions, which implants virtual orchestras that simulate live musicians using digital recordings. The letter states, "We want to have a place on Broadway, so we're interested in having dialogue with Broadway producers . . . [Cost is] $21,000 to $50,000 depending on amount of music in show, plus $15,000 to $20,000 in equipment costs, which can be recouped from weekly fee on run of show or subsequent production."
Jed Bernstein, president of the League, told the New York daily, "The upcoming negotiations will be confronting a range of very difficult issues, not the least of which is the longstanding practice that requires producers to pay for more musicians than are artistically necessary. We are committed to reach a happy resolution with 802 on that and any other issues that will not lead to any work stoppage. But, we are committed to having our shows play on regardless."
A notice posted on www.craiglist.org, an employment bulletin board, was particularly troubling to the musicians union. The posting read, "Music Operator to operate computerized virtual orchestra for New York musical theater production in the event of a labor dispute. Must be able to read music. Strong rhythm and keyboard skills a plus."
Moriarty and Bernstein exchanged letters over the posting, which was eventually taken down.